North Africa’s widening arc of jihad

Oussama Romdhani
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If outside military intervention has managed to extinguish the jihadist brush-fires in Northern Mali, a wider arc of terror seems to be radiating in northward and eastward directions, in and out of the larger North Africa region.

With the swearing-in of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta as president last Wednesday, Mali has achieved the closest thing to a new lease on the future. Jihadist formations which had taken over northern Mali were no match for the French troops of Operation Serval and their West African allies. Pro al-Qaeda groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Dine and the “Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa” (MUJAO) were prevented from descending on Southern Mali and for the moment, forced to lie low.


The challenges for the new authorities in Mali are huge. They include starting a “national dialogue” and a reconciliation process based on the June 2013 Ouagadogou agreement with representatives of the rebellious populations of Northern Mali.

Mali's future

Moreover, Mali must establish a credible security system which would enable Bamakou to control and stabilize the territory, which in turn would aid the resettlement of thousands of refugees and displaced persons. Furthermore, a sustainable and inclusive development strategy needs to be devised to improve the economic fortunes of a country where state resources have decreased by 30 percent in the last year and where nearly half of the 15 million strong population continue to live below the poverty line.

But the new Malian authorities will not be left alone to face these challenges. The international donors’ conference “Together for a New Mali”, held in Brussels last May by the European Union and the French, has already pledged 3.25 million Euros ($4.2 billion) in economic support. Based on the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2100, about 12,000 troops are to be deployed in the country as part of the U.N. peacekeeping force (MINUSMA). Also, the U.S. is likely to resume military assistance which it suspended after the 2012 military coup (against President Amadou Toumani Toure).

The widening arc of jihad, from the Sahel to North Africa, and back, is bound to complicate the calculus of many countries in the region already faced with daunting transitions.

Oussama Romdhani

Re-establishing security in Mali will depend on domestic military-civilian balances, tribal dynamics on the ground and on the success of the internally-assisted training and reorganization efforts. Even without unexpected complications, the process will probably take longer than what the main protagonists expect. A recent European Union Institute for Security Studies paper quotes a “European top officer” as saying that “even Western armies usually need 4-5 years of targeted training, reliable equipment, and then cumulative battle experience to effectively combat terrorism - but for now, Malians will have to make do with their own precarious situation.”

A lot will also depend on developments outside of Bamakou’s control. Jihadist turbulence has been spreading out towards the Mediterranean littoral especially since outside military intervention in Mali began.

Pushing north

Mauritanian terrorism expert Isselmou Ould Mustapha thinks that “French military intervention destroyed the operational capacities of AQIM in northern Mali,” but in certain regards the problem was displaced up north. “Al Qaeda linked groups fled from the airstrikes and took refuge in southern Tunisia and Libya. Sources say they are also present in Niger, Chad and even Darfur,” he added.

As the French campaign in Mali was about to be launched, Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s “Signed-in-Blood-Batallion” (“al Muaqqi’un bid-Dima”), an AQIM splinter group, attacked the “In Amenas” gas installation in the Algerian Deep South; thirty seven hostages were killed.

Since January, the trans-Saharan flow of jihadists has forced Libya to close its southern borders. Further north, less than 250 kilometers from the Mediterranean coast, jihadists -entrenched in Tunisia’s Mount Chambi killed and maimed several soldiers and guardsmen. They forced Tunisian authorities, to establish unprecedented “buffer zones” on the country’s borders with Libya and Algeria.

On August 22nd, Mauritanian news agency ANI carried out an announcement by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leader of the “Masked Men Brigade” (“al Mulathamun”), that his group had merged with another AQIM-spinoff formation, the Mali-based “Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa” (MUJAO), led by Tuareg militant Ahmed Ould Amer. They formed a new group called “al-Murabitun.”

The designs of the new group seem to go beyond the previous Algeria-Mali-Niger region where its two mother-organizations have previously been active. According to an announcement the purpose of the coalition is “to unify the ranks of Muslims from the Nile to the (Atlantic) ocean”, in order to thwart “the Zionist-crusader campaign.” It cited “France and its allies” in the region as prime targets for “jihad” in retaliation for “aggressions against Muslims” in Azawad. The announcement, which called on “all Muslims,” also betrayed intent to draw more sympathizers beyond the jihadi hardcore constituency.

The merger between the two AQIM spinoff formations is worrying because previous collaboration between the two groups had yielded lethal results.

Four months after the In Amenas attack, Mokhtar Belmokhtar conducted a spectacular operation in Niger. In collaboration with MUJAO, he launched two suicide bomb attacks against a military camp in the city of Agadez and a French-operated uranium mine in the city of Arlit, killing 26 people. MUAJO and “al-Muaqi’un Bid-Dima” both claimed responsibility for the attacks threatening to continuing striking Niger and to widen their circle of jihad to Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and Benin, in response to involvement in France’s “war against al-Sharia.”

For terrorism expert Andrew Lebovich, the attacks on Niger demonstrated “the migration of fighting, away from Algeria and Mali, as well as providing more possible evidence of the emergence of southern Libya as a site for militant training, planning, and staging for operations in other countries.” He stated that this was “the continuation of a multi-year process of diversification of militancy in the Sahel”. As a result MUJAO was taking its activities into Mali, southern Algeria, Libya, Niger, and Chad, while AQIM, was “moving progressively further east into Tunisia.”

It is not clear yet if the creation of “al-Murabitun” is a form of rhetorical posturing or if it is meant instead to carry operational consequences. Lebovich speculates, asking if it is “an attempt to set up a more coherent jihadist organization in the Sahel and North Africa with a more explicitly broad reach.”

Eyes on Egypt?

The merger statement issued by MUJAO and the Masked Men Brigade raised many eyebrows as the scope of its attention encompassed Egypt. “Any reasonable Muslim has come to realize that secularist forces totally reject any Islamist project. The example of Egypt is a recent case in point,” it claimed.

“Al Murabitun” was not the only Jihadist formation to see propaganda-value in the July 3rd removal of President Mohamed Mursi in Egypt. Al Qaeda’s chief Ayman al-Zawahiri pointed out, in a recorded message broadcast on August 2: “We have to admit first that legitimacy does not mean elections and democracy, but legitimacy is the Sharia (Islamic law)... which is above all the constitutions and laws." Jihadists in Iraq and the Maghreb issued similar “anti-democracy” statements.

If Jihadists’ activities have been on the rise in the Sinai Peninsula in recent years, they have accelerated since the fall of Mursi. According to Associated Press’ Maggie Michael, “Sinai has seen an influx of foreign fighters the past two months, including several hundred Yemenis.” The Egyptian army has indicated that 87 Jihadists, including 32 “foreigners,” have been killed; and 250 arrested, including 80 “foreigners”, during the same period. Last Tuesday, Cairo was shaken by a car bomb blast targeting Minister of the Interior Mohamed Ibrahim.

“With al-Qaeda already rejuvenated in Iraq and Syria and entrenched in Yemen and Libya, the Egyptian crisis promises to further complicate and perpetuate the global jihadist threat,” noted Bruce Riedel, Director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution.

The widening arc of jihad, from the Sahel to North Africa (and back) is bound to complicate the calculus of many countries in the region already faced with daunting transitions.

Reverse blow back?

It would be misleading to reduce the widening arc of jihad to northward or eastward trends from the Sahel and the Sahara towards the Maghreb and the Middle East, it may be the other way around.

One should not forget that Mali’s insurrectionary environment was created, in no small part, by the flow of arms and fighters southward after the fall of Qaddafi. Much like other jihadi warlords, Mokhtar Belmokhtar was interested early-on in the arms depots of the former Libyan dictator. According to Paris-based “Jeune Afrique,” he even accompanied senior AQIM commander Abdulhamid Abu Zeid on a shopping spree in post-Gadhafi Libya late in 2011. He is said to have bought all types of weapons and military equipment including $250,000 worth of armored vehicles.

Today, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia offer unstable environments that jihadists, from inside and out, will try to exploit. From that perspective, sub-Saharan African experts are expressing concern over a sort of “reverse blow back” that could eventually hit the Sahel.

A recent paper by the Nouakchott-based Center for Strategic and Security for the Sahel Sahara postulated that “the continued crisis in North Africa, and especially in Egypt, is bad news for the Sahel.”
According to the center, “the fundamental question in the Sahel still remains unanswered: where will “losers” of the Syrian and Egyptian crises go after their battles? What is going on in south-west Libya? A large number of activists will probably remain, but many fighters will join their Algerian, Libyan, Mauritanian and Tunisian brothers already in the Sahel.

However, the center seems to forget that as jihadists eventually return home, the most direct blow back from the civil war in Syria is, at first, likely to affect other Arab countries, including those of the Maghreb. Recent news reports have mentioned the creation of a Jihadist formation named “Shem al-Islam,” constituted by Moroccan fighters in Syria. The group published a manifesto betraying a hard-line propensity towards “takfir” (considering others to be non-believers). “All ideologies, be they communist, socialist, pan-Arabist, secularist or liberal, and from other affiliations other than the Islamic community and identity, are forms of blasphemy and misguidance,” it ominously declared.

Based on the Afghanistan experience, the world has learned that the “chicken will eventually come back to roost.” Since then, jihadist movements have grown in “diversity” and globalization. With the increasingly prominent role played by the al-Qaeda operation in Yemen, as the “executive manager” for AQ Central, “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP) has one eye on the region and another eye on the rest of the world. According to the U.S. terrorism monitoring institution “Intel Center,” France is now AQAP’s second target after the United States. The same will apply to other regional branches acting out of opportunism or “solidarity.”

The widening arc of jihad, from the Sahel to North Africa and back, is bound to complicate the calculus of many countries in the region already facing daunting transitions, especially since feuding political elites do not yet rate national security as high on their list of priorities.


Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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